House of Cards [CHAPTER 41]



 Forty-One


What does a politician end up saying to St. Peter when at last they meet? Complain about the number of spoiled ballot papers? Plead that if only the polling stations had stayed open a little longer everything would be different?

  I have my own plan. I intend to look him in the eye and tell the old bastard he’s fired.

He had called her later that evening. “Mattie, would you care to come round?”

“Francis, I’d love to, really love to, but won’t there be a scrum outside your house?”

“Make it late. They will all have gone.”

“And…Mrs. Urquhart? I wouldn’t want to disturb her.”

“Already returned to the country for several days.”

  It was nearly midnight when she slipped quietly through the front door in Cambridge Street, making sure no one was watching. She felt somehow devious, yet expectant.

  He took off her coat, very slowly, was looking closely at her. She felt awkward and suddenly kissed him on the cheek.

“Sorry,” she blushed. “It’s just…congratulations. Bit unprofessional, I suppose.”

“You might say that, Mattie. But I’m not going to complain.” And he started laughing.

Soon they were seated in his study with its close, almost conspiratorial cracked-leather atmosphere, whiskey in hands.

“Mattie, you’ve been rather naughty, I hear.”

“What have you heard?” she asked in alarm.

“Among other things, that you’ve upset Greville Preston.”

“Oh, that. I’m afraid I have.”

“Afraid?”

“Grev won’t print anything of mine. I’ve been banished. On gardening duty.”

“That could be rather attractive.”

“Not when the whole world is changing and I’m not part of it. Not when…”

  She hesitated.

“When what, Mattie? I can tell something’s bothering you.”

“When something truly wicked is going on.”

“That’s politics for you.”

“No, this isn’t just politics. It’s far worse.”

“Tell me everything—if you’d like to. Treat me as a father confessor.”

“No, I could never do that, Francis.”

“I thought you said I reminded you of your father.”

“Only in your strength.”

  Her cheeks brightened a little, she seemed bashful; he smiled. And suddenly for Mattie the room was filled with a swirl of colors—the crystal blue of his eyes, the swirling amber of the whiskey, the deep dark hues of the old leather, the rug of Persian purples. She could hear her heart beating in the womb-like silence. She held out her glass as he refilled it, knowing that she had started something by coming here that she would have to finish.

“I think someone deliberately targeted Collingridge.”

“I’m fascinated.”

“The leaked polls, leaked information. I think the Paddington address was a set-up, which means…”

“What does it mean?”

“The share dealing was a set-up, too.”

Urquhart looked startled, as if someone had pinched his cheek. “But why?”

“To get rid of the Prime Minister, of course!” she exclaimed, frustrated that he was being so slow to see what she had now clearly understood.

“But…but…who, Mattie? Who?”

“Roger O’Neill’s part of it.”

“Roger O’Neill?” Urquhart burst into mocking laughter. “But what on earth could he possibly have to gain from all this?”

“I don’t know!” She pounded the leather sofa with her fist, her frustration boiling over.

  Urquhart rose from his own chair and came to sit by her. He took her hand, slowly unfurled each of her fingers, rubbed the palm with his thumb. “You’re upset.”

“Of course I’m upset. I’m a journalist sitting on the biggest bloody story of the century and no one will print it.”

“And I think you’re too upset to think clearly.”

“What do you mean?” she said, affronted.

“Roger O’Neill,” he repeated, his tone full of scorn. “The man can’t control his own habits let alone juggle the parts of a complicated plot.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“So…?” he prodded, encouraging her.

“He must be acting with someone else. Someone more significant, more powerful. Someone who could benefit from the change of leadership.”

  He nodded in agreement. “There has to be another figure in there somewhere, pulling O’Neill’s strings.” He was pushing her down a dangerous trail but he knew she would get there eventually under her own steam. Better to hold her hand.

“So we’re looking for a mystery man with both means and the motive. In a position to control O’Neill. With access to sensitive political information.”

  He looked at her with growing admiration. She was not only beautiful but, once she got going, made her way along the path with surprising skill. She gasped as she reached the end of the trail and suddenly saw the view.

“Someone who’d been engaged in a bitter battle with the Prime Minister.”

“There are plenty of those.”

“No! No! Don’t you see? There’s only one man who fits that whole bill.” She was panting with the excitement of discovery. “Only one. Teddy Williams.”

He sat back on the sofa, his jaw sagging. “Dear God. This is appalling.”

It was her turn to take his hand, squeezing it. “Now can you understand why

I’m so frustrated. This extraordinary story, but Grev won’t touch it.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t prove it. There’s no hard evidence. So I’m stuffed. I just don’t know what to do, Francis.”

“That’s one of the reasons I asked you round here tonight, Mattie. You’re going through a difficult time. I think I might be able to help.”

“Really?”

“You need something else to offer Preston, something he’ll be unable to resist.”

“What’s that?”

“The inside story of the Urquhart campaign. Who knows, I might even win. And if I do, afterwards those who have favored access would be in a very powerful position in Fleet Street. And I can assure you, Mattie, that if I win, you will have particularly favorable access.”

“You’re serious, Francis? You would do that for me?”

“Most certainly.”

“But why?”

“Because!” His eyes lit up in amusement, then became serious once again, looking deep inside her. “Because you are quite brilliant at your job, Mattie. Because you are exquisitely beautiful—am I allowed to venture that opinion?”

  She smiled coquettishly. “You are very much allowed to say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

“And because, Mattie, I like you. Very much.”

“Thank you, Francis.” She leaned forward, kissed him, not on the cheek this time but on the lips. She drew back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”

  He hadn’t moved, steady, like a rock. She kissed him again.

* * *

It was much later that evening, well after one, after Mattie had returned to her home, that Urquhart left his house and went back to his room in the Commons. His secretary had already emptied the ashtrays, cleared the glasses, straightened the cushions. It had still been boiling with noise when he had left but now it was a silent as the dead. He closed the door behind him, locked it carefully. He crossed to the four-drawer filing cabinet with its stout security bar and combination lock. He twirled the dial four times, back and forth, until there was a gentle click and the security bar fell away into his hands. He removed it and bent down to open the bottom drawer.

  The drawer creaked as it came open. It was stuffed full of files, each with the name of a different MP, each containing embarrassing and even incriminating material he had carefully withdrawn from the safe in the Whips’ Office. It had taken him nearly three years to amass these secrets, these acts of utter stupidity.

  He knelt on the floor while he sorted through the files. He found what he was looking for, a padded envelope, already addressed and sealed. He put it to one side, then he closed the drawer and secured the filing cabinet, testing as he always did to make sure the lock and security bar had caught properly.

  He didn’t drive straight home. Instead he drove to one of the twenty-four-hour motorcycle messenger services that flourish among the seedier basements of Soho. He dropped the envelope off and paid in cash for it to be delivered to its destination. It would have been easier, of course, for him to have posted it in the House of Commons where they have one of the most efficient post offices in the country. But he didn’t want a House of Commons postmark anywhere near this envelope.





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